Ordinary Grace: review

Ordinary Grace
William Kent Krueger
Atria/Simon & Schuster

A born and raised Midwesterner, I am drawn to novels set in my part of the world. Ohio. Michigan. Wisconsin. Minnesota. There is something ordinary gracemagical about stepping into a world you know, of finding a story that captures the ethos of a place you love. When I turned to the blurb on William Kent Krueger’s novel Ordinary Grace, and read “Minnesota” and “1961” I knew it was a must-read.

The narrator of the story is thirteen-year-old Frank Drum, a pretty typical “PK” as we used to call them. Preacher’s Kid. He balked at authority, pushed limits, and tried to circumvent just about any punishment his parents meted out. His father, Pastor Nathan Drum, is a WWII vet who traded studying law for the ministry when he returned to the States. Frank’s mother Ruth was less than thrilled with the prospect of being a pastor’s wife and she shares Frank’s rebellious spirit. She smokes … on the porch, in clear view of everyone. She drinks martinis. And she’s not so sure about this God-thing her husband is all about. Ariel, Frank’s older sister, is an accomplished pianist and composer with great promise who is about to set off to Julliard.  Frank’s nine-year-old brother Jake is a quiet boy, in part because he lives with a stutter that makes speaking difficult.

The story begins with the death of one of Frank’s classmates, Bobby Cole. Daydreaming as he sat on the trestle over the Minnesota river, he was killed when he didn’t hear an oncoming train. Police officer Doyle suspects his death was not an accident–that maybe one of the homeless who lived by the river had something to do with Bobby’s death. Or maybe it was the Indian Warren Redstone, a Native man with a rap sheet. (His charge? Protesting for Indian rights.) His recent reappearance in town (by Doyle’s account anyways) could only mean trouble.

But Bobby’s death was just the beginning of an awful summer of loss. One that would both pull Frank away from his father’s faith and pull him closer. After Bobby’s death, the brothers discover one of those homeless men, dead by the river; Ariel’s mentor and close family friend Emil Brandt tries to commit suicide. And then comes the death that nearly destroys the Drum family.

Although I think it’s evident that Krueger loves us Midwesterners, he doesn’t shy away from uncovering our ugliness. Racial prejudice. Gender stereotypes. Abuse. Alcoholism. But he does so with understanding of our frailty–he looks at us honestly and without condemnation.

Krueger is able to do this, I think, with the cooperation of  Nathan Drum. We are privy to a couple of Nathan’s sermons in Ordinary Grace and we learn that his God is a God of love. A God who promises light over darkness, who gives us humans the grace to “endure our own dark night and rise to the dawning of a new day and rejoice.”  When Nathan learns that a young person in his life is gay, he reassures the young man he is a child of God–loved, not sick; made in God’s image, not a freak. It’s not what you’d expect of a rural pastor in Minnesota at the beginning of the sixties. But sometimes those of us in the Midwest even stereotype ourselves, and I’d venture a guess that Nathan’s view of the world was more common than we assume.

That’s what I love about reading novels written by authors in the Midwest. Our faith, our optimism, our love of family–and hot dish casseroles!–is not mocked or derided. Instead, our spirit is celebrated.

Happy Flavia Day!

Did you know …

Alan Bradley started writing after he retired from a career in TV engineering and production.

Bradley never planned on writing more than ten Flavia de Luce novels (*yikes*) because he can’t imagine her as a teenager. He has considered, however, Flavia at 70 looking back at her life.

The author is … Canadian! and never traveled out of North America until the publication of the beloved novels. Now he and his wife plan to live for a time in each of the countries where the novels have been translated–that’s 31 and counting.

Bradley sold film rights to Sam Mendes whose production company also brought us Call the Midwife.

While there is no release date or cast for the BBC series, I found this intriguing trailer for a Flavia film in Norway, of all places!

And last of all, friend (and blogger) Denice at Denice’s Day makes a pretty good case for suggesting Flavia join the ranks of Jo March, Hermione Granger, Scout Finch, and Nancy Drew.  We need to promote images of strong and confident young protagonists for girls to dream about … and grow into.

The Grave’s a Fine and Private Place: review

The Grave’s a Fine and Private Place
Alan Bradley
Random House
release date: January 30, 2018

It’s certainly no secret that I have a little crush on Flavia de Luce. How could I not? She’s brilliant, confident, beguiling, and misunderstood. the grave's a fine and private place(I’m pretty sure I’ve reviewed all of her books on this blog!)) I couldn’t have been happier that Flavia returned to Buckshaw in Thrice the Brinded Cat after her brief interlude at Miss Bodycoate’s in Chimney Sweepers. While I’ve never gone on a Flavia adventure I haven’t loved, it was good to be home.

In The Grave’s a Fine and Private Place, the 9th Flavia mystery, Flavia, her sisters Feely and Daffy, and Dogger have gone on holiday to recover from a death in the family and spend time together before Buckshaw is sold. The girls will scatter in different directions (Flavia to London to live with Aunt Felicity), Dogger and Mrs. Mullet released from service. But while boating on a lazy river near Volesthorpe, Dogger points out St.-Mildred’s-in-the-Marsh, where just two years before one Canon Whitbread had poisoned three members of his congregation with tainted communion wine. And quick as you can say cyanide and strychnine, wouldn’t you know–Flavia pulls a corpse out of the river.

There’s the usual eccentric cast of characters. A flamboyant actress, Poppy Mandrill, who directs village plays in her retirement. The nosy Mrs. Palmer, innkeeper-cum-poet. A gambling funeral director. And even a beautiful old flame from Dogger’s past, Miss Claire Tetlock.

The plot and cast of characters are pretty much what readers have come to expect in an Alan Bradley novel. I have a pair of fuzzy slippers I slip on the moment I come home from work. They’re not fashionable designer slippers and my feet get what they expect: cozy comfort.  And just like those slippers, the plot of this novel is as familiar and comfortable as the ones that preceded it.

After the dramatic cliffhangers of the last two novels, the ending of The Grave’s a Fine and Private Place is a happy one. Or maybe promising is more accurate. In any case, Bradley leads us to believe that we are about to set off on a Flavia adventure of an entirely  different sort in book #10.

Wonder-ful: Wonder (review)

Wonder
R. J. Palacio
Knopf

I might very well be the last reader in the U.S. to have read Wonder, writer R. J. Palacio’s best-selling first novel. I’m kind of out of the middle-reader loop at this stage in my life, and I found the title by clicking on a trailer that popped up on my Facebook feed. Thank goodness (at least in this case!) for click bait because this book was a gem.

Auggie Pullman was born with Treacher Collins syndrome, a craniofacial condition that left him facing surgery after surgery (twenty-seven, to be precise) from his first few months of life. Because he was so often hospitalized or recovering from surgery at home, Auggie’s mom home-schooled him. His dog Daisy and sixteen-year-old sister Via are his best friends because Auggie doesn’t get out much. When he was younger, Auggie wore an astronaut’s helmet in public just to minimize the stares from adults and children alike. (Strange creatures we humans are that a boy wearing a helmet is less odd than dealing with a facial difference.)

But now ten-years-old, Auggie is starting school for the first time. A small group of children–Jack Will, Julian, and Charlotte–have been recruited to show him around the building before the school year begins, and it’s a rocky start. Charlotte is overly niceJulian pretty much ignores Auggie and then bluntly asks “What’s the deal with your face?” But Jack Will. Auggie smiled at him, and Jack smiled back.

The first days of school, Auggie keeps his head down and his mouth shut. Except that the tween world is a stratified place and his difference isn’t easy to hid. Fifth grade can be rough. There are whispers. The lunchroom is hell. A cruel game called the Plague circulates around Auggie. Even his English teacher Mr. Browne’s monthly precepts (September’s is “Choose kind”) can’t keep the wolves at bay. But Auggie’s humor and wit win over a few good souls and he finds a tribe.

Of course that’s not the whole story. There’s a betrayal, a violent episode on a class camping trip, a heart-wrenching loss, and some pretty despicable adults. Palacio also gives us the story from the voices of Summer and Jack, true friends both of them. Auggie’s sister Via’s chapters reveal how a condition like TCS affects the whole family. My heart ached for her.

When I saw the movie trailer, I wondered how the movie industry ever put out a call for actors to play Auggie and how the boy with TCS who played Auggie would be recieved. But this is Hollywood, after all, and it was prosthetics and make-up that turned child actor Jacob Tremblay into August Pullman. Shouldn’t have been a surprise.

If you’d like a thought-provoking response from a young woman who lives with a craniofacial condition, read Ariel Henley’s review in Teen Vogue. Invoking the attitude “nothing about us without us”, Henley is clearly disappointed that the movie makers chose Tremblay: “… it was devastating to realize that the directors involved with Wonder would rather cast a healthy, “normal” looking child and put him in makeup and prosthetics, rather than cast someone who looked like me.” If you are a Wonder fan already, please read her article “What ‘Wonder’ Gets Wrong About Disfigurment and Craniofactial Disorders” for another perspective.

In the end, though, August Pullman’s story is fiction. And the most important Truths can be found in story. For me, it’s Auggie’s indomitable spirit that makes me want to be a better person.

Perfect holiday gift: Where’d you go, Bernadette (review)

Where’d you go, Bernadette
Maria Semple
Little Brown

Chick lit plots and characters are like so many cut-out cookies, after a while. You’ve got the caterpillar career girl, the stuck-up (but oh-so-handsome) object of her affections. The mishaps. Enter heart-of-gold True Love to sweep her off her feet. The same can be said of YA fiction, except you substitute “misfit” for “career” and throw in some parent angst and maybe a little bullying. Maria Semple’s Where’d You Go, Bernadette defies both categories. It could be chick lit, could be YA–but what I’m certain of is that the story is inventive and fun. The New York Times called it “divinely funny”, John Green, “A moving, smart page-turner,” and both were spot-on. where'd you go Bernadette

Bernadette, an LA transplant living in Seattle, was once America’s girl-architect phenom. Now she’s all but agoraphobic, living in an historic home for wayward girls she’s tried to thought about making into a home for her family. Bernadette has been hiding from the world for twenty years and thinks she likes it that way. (Her feuds with the stay-at-home moms at her daughter’s exclusive school and her rage at all things Seattle might lead the reader to come to another conclusion about her happiness, however.) Daughter Bee was dearly conceived and barely survived a life-threatening heart defect at birth; her first few years were touch and go. Bee is a gifted young woman with a heart of gold and a wit that’s sharp; she has soared through her first eight years of school and is on her way to Choate. Dad and husband Elgin Fox is a whiz at Microsoft and rarely at home. (If Semple is to be believed, I did learn that the Microsoft culture is creepy.)

There is conflict aplenty in Where’d you go. A battle royale with a neighbor–actually make that two neighbors; Bernadette has issues with people. An admin (that’s an administrative assistant in Microsoft speak) who’s also a home-wrecker. A house that has boarded off rooms and blackberry vines growing up through the floorboards. Top it all off with a trip to Antarctica that no one in the family really wants to take except Bee. Oh, and did I mention Bernadette that does her shopping and appointment making via a virtual assistant from Delhi, India named Manjula?

Now these unconventional characters also deal with some pretty serious matters and when Bernadette disappears (that’s the “where’d you go” part) I was a bit worried that the novel would take a U-turn and end up in A Lesson For Modern Times territory.

But no worries. It’s madcap. It’s zany. And you’ll smile the whole way through this read, I guarantee.